The Woman Who Saved the West

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During the beginning of the so-called Dark Ages (of which I have written here) the Church faced a veritable crisis. While the paganism of the now defunct Roman Empire had nearly completely receded and Arianism had been roundly defeated both at the Councils of Nicea and Chalcedon, both still continued to plague the Church’s attempts at evangelizing Europe and building up a more markedly Christian civilization.

Paganism of the Roman sort had largely disappeared, existing mainly in a few pockets of some of the intellectual elites in a more sophisticated allegorical mode or on the fringes of rural society in a somewhat rudimentary, almost animistic guise. Yet as the ‘barbarian’ invasions brought new people groups into what had previous been the territory of the Empire, these quasi-Romanized people also brought with them much of their religious predilections, often of the pagan variety.

Yet not all of these new people groups were primarily pagan. After Nicea Arianism still maintained a large following, at times (and under imperial support) even outnumbering or at least overpowering the orthodox who subscribed to Nicea. As imperial favor eventually turned back to favor orthodoxy, those still holding Arian opinions ventured north (not always willingly…) in evangelistic missions to the ‘barbarians,’ often meeting with considerable success. In fact, as these supposedly ‘barbarian’ invasions progressed, many of the Romans of the withering empire may have been surprised to find that these ‘unwashed hordes’ had the name of Christ on their lips.

As the incursions into Roman territory by these people groups commenced, many areas such as Visigoth Spain, Vandal Northern Africa and Ostrogoth Italy held to sort of nominal Arianism, although it could rear itself in zeal when the situation warranted it, especially when tensions with the Catholics in their territories rose.

Gaul was a considerable exception, in that most of the Franks who had conquered and settled there still held to a Germanic form of paganism. Arianism had not seriously inculcated itself in Gaul by the time of the conquest; however, there were already a considerable number of Catholic churches in existence, and the Franks, on the whole, exercised a policy of toleration for the Christians living there.

Up until the early sixth century the Franks were divided into a number of small kingdoms. In 509 Clovis I managed to conquer most of the Frankish kingdoms and unite them under his banner. As the Frankish power was rising in Europe, so its destiny was to prove pivotal in the future of Gaul and of the western world as a whole.

Those in the church were not oblivious to the rising power of the Franks, and there was a perhaps unspoken fear that if the Franks allied themselves with one of the Arian powers then the Franks may themselves convert to Arianism which could prove deadly to the church in Europe. (I use the term Europe somewhat anachronistically and merely for geographical convenience as the concept of Europe certainly did not exist at this time.) Already rumors were circulating that Clovis was eyeing marriage alliances with some of the surrounding Arian kingdoms.

In the kingdom of Burgundia the king of Vienne, Gondebaud, had two daughters: Chrona and Clotilda. Even though the king himself and most of the populace of Burgundia were professed Arians, these two princesses and their mother, Queen Caretena, were extremely devout Catholics. Chrona herself would eventually go on to found an abbey in Geneva.

It is very probable that Clotilda’s eventual marriage to Clovis I was episcopally inspired and arranged. Aware of Clotilda’s reputation for sanctity and piety, such a match could have been imagined to bring about the conversion of the leader of the Franks, which would have positive repercussions for the Church in Gaul and surrounding areas. After all, even though the Franks would be allying with an Arian power, the Burgundians were a far weaker kingdom and already had a significant population of Catholics.

As such, Clotilda entered into what essentially amounted to a missionary marriage. It was a political one as well, to be sure, but Clotilda’s piety ensured that Clovis I would be exposed to Christianity and might even be converted.

Clotilda’s efforts were not immediately successful. The marriage took place in either 491 or 492, and for the next five to six years Clovis I retained his pagan loyalties. Clotilda gave birth to their first child and Clovis allowed him to be baptized, but the child died soon thereafter. Clovis was furious, believing his wife’s devotion to Christ to be the cause. Gregory of Tours has Clovis saying:

If the boy had been dedicated in the name of my gods he would certainly have lived; but as it is, since he was baptized in the name of your God, he could not live at all.

Clotilda responded thus:

I give thanks to the omnipotent God, creator of all, who has judged me not wholly unworthy, that he should deign to take to his kingdom one born from my womb. My soul is not stricken with grief for his sake, because I know that, summoned from this world as he was in his baptismal garments, he will be fed by the vision of God.

They had another son, whom they named Chlodomer. He fell sick following his baptism, and Clovis again felt despair at the thought of losing another son so soon. He exclaimed:

It is impossible that anything else should happen to him than happened to his brother, namely, that being baptized in the name of your Christ, should die at once.

Things did not bode well for Clotilda’s attempts at converting her husband, and no doubt she was also grief-stricken at the thought of losing another son. Gregory of Tours relates that she prayed so fervently for Chlodomer that he recovered from his illness.

Clovis’ conversion did not come until later, during a war with the Alamanni. In a scene somewhat reminiscent of the conversion of Constantine nearly 200 years earlier, (is it possible Gregory is attempting to connect this new leader of the Franks with the Constantine of old…) the battle is going poorly for Clovis, as his army is being overwhelmed by the enemy. According to Gregory, he lifted his eyes to heaven and, with deep regret and repentance in his heart, sent forth this prayer:

Jesus Christ, whom Clotilda asserts to be the son of the living God, who art said to give aid to those in distress, and to bestow victory on those who hope in thee, I beseech the glory of thy aid, with the vow that if thou wilt grant me victory over these enemies, and I shall know that power which she says that people dedicated in thy name have had from thee, I will believe in thee and be baptized in thy name. For I have invoked my own gods but, as I find, they have withdrawn from aiding me; and therefore I believe that they possess no power, since they do not help those who obey them. I now call upon thee, I desire to believe thee only let me be rescued from my adversaries.

Clotilda’s efforts and prayers had finally come to fruition, and on Christmas Day in 497 Clovis I submitted himself for baptism. Previously he had been torn between the Arianism of his sister (who was married to Theodoric, a Visigoth king) and the Catholicism of Clotilda; it wasn’t until after meditating at the tomb of St. Martin of Tours that he made his choice, a choice that would change the course of the history of the Franks and shape the fate of the West.

St. Clotilda is a name not known to many, but in many respects her long-suffering, piety and ceaseless prayers brought the light of Christ to those who were in darkness, and that light spread not only over the miles but also over time, such that hundreds of millions of western Christians owe their faith in part to her.

She died in 545 at Tours and was buried in Paris beside Clovis and her children.

———————

UPDATE

I was remiss to not include this in the original post, but Clotilda’s legacy actually extended through her family, in that her daughter and great-granddaughters (and even great-great-granddaughter) would have the courage and devotion to witness to Christ in much the same way that she did.

(Her sons did not fare so well, unfortunately. It was the Frankish custom to divide up the kingdom among one’s sons, which almost always had disastrous yet predictable effects. Chlodomer died in 524 during a battle, and following this the remaining sons Childebert and Clotaire vied with each other for control of the kingdom. According to Gregory of Tours, this would have erupted into a very bloody war had not Clotilda intervened with her prayers that this fratricide would not occur. Evidently a storm erupted prior to the military engagement which dispersed the armies and prevented the war.)

Her daughter Clotilda was married to Amalric, an Arian Visigothic king. Clotilda II had the same religious devotion as her mother and was forced to endure substantial abuse at the hands of Amalric- we are told that he was accustomed to flinging feces at her or striking her in the face as she would make her way to church, often to the point of drawing blood. Her brother Childebert, we are told, received a towel drenched in her blood, and from there set out to defeat the already weakened Visigoths.

Clotilda I’s great-granddaughter Ingund was married to Hermenegild, the son of the Visigoth king Leovigild. Both the king and his wife Goswintha were fairly fanatical Arians, and thus Ingund and Hermenegild were often subjected to violence on account of their repudiation of Arianism. Backed by bishop Leander, Hermenegild was able to rally substantial forces around him, such that Leovigild was compelled to create a coalition to counter the threat. At this point Hermenegild was ordered to profess Arianism, but both he and Ingund refused.

Heremenegild, even though he was gaining substantial support, could not bear the thought of fighting against his own father. On the behest of his brother, Hermenegild agreed to meet with Leovigild to discuss peace terms. It turned out to be a setup, and Hermenegild was thrown into prison until he recanted and submitted to a second Arian baptism. He refused and was forced to languish there for several months until his father in frustration finally ordered his execution.

Queen Goswintha continued to work on Ingund, attempting to get her to convert to Arianism. Ingund followed her martyr husband’s example and refused to yield. We are told that her response to Goswintha was as such:

I have acknowledged the Holy Trinity, equal in one single God. I believe in it with all my heart; I will never renounce my faith!

Although she did not suffer martyrdom as Hermenegild, Goswintha had her violently thrown to the ground and trampled until her blood ran. Following these events and the death of Leovigild Hermenegild’s brother Recared reversed many of his father’s religious policies which saw the eventual decline and death of Arianism in Spain.

Clotilda I’s great-granddaughter Bertha became the wife of King Ethelbert, king of Kent, which opened up the doors to the Gospel in England. She even persuaded Ethelbert to allow St. Augustine (the missionary) to preach to him.

Bertha’s daughter Ethelburga, the great-great-granddaughter of Clotilda I, would play the same role as her mother with Edwin, the king of Norththumbria. Her influence with Edwin led to the eventual Christianization of that kingdom.

2 comments

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  • so . . . you’re saying missionary dating is a good thing?

    That’s actually a fascinating story, and (of course) one that I’ve never heard before. I just finished reading “Junia Is Not Alone” by Scot McKnight which takes on the issue of how contributions of women have been whitewashed from our history of the church. Also an engrossing read. I’m glad guys like you are illuminating this issue…

    • absolutely a good thing!

      But only if:

      1. you are a member of royalty
      2. you are marrying a pagan

      I hadn’t heard Clotilda’s story either, although I think she is (or at least was) a lot more well known among the French, as she is often referred to as ‘the first Queen of France.’ The book in which I read this was written in the late 1950’s, (and was originally in French) and the author spoke about her as if she was a fairly well-known historical personage.

      Interestingly enough, Clotilda’s daughters and great-grand-daughters would come to play similar roles in various places with similar results. I’m going to update my post with some of that information.

      thanks 🙂

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Jason Watson

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